Presentations need to answer 'So what?' to truly be effective

Sitting through a series of presentations aimed at money managers, I was struck by a troubling similarity that ran through each: the "So what?" question was often left unanswered, leaving a dangerous gap between the speaker and the audience.

Sitting through a series of presentations aimed at money managers, I was struck by a troubling similarity that ran through each: the "So what?" question was often left unanswered, leaving a dangerous gap between the speaker and the audience.

While the presentations certainly looked professional, often taking advantage of every PowerPoint bell and whistle, they often came across as little more than a collection of unconnected and unexplained facts. This is a surefire communications disaster that leaves the audience scratching their heads. It's like eavesdropping on a conversation at the next table in a restaurant, picking up a stray snippet here and there. At heart, the presentations all needed a single story line with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

An audience is nearly always inherently resistant to a speaker, especially in such settings. The speaker's first task is to overcome that resistance and to make it as easy as possible to win them over. The less taken for granted, the better.

A memorable presentation seeks to tell a story that answers the "So what?" question. In theory, money managers have a nearly unlimited range of investment options for their capital. They could buy a piece of property, a Van Gogh, or a bar of gold. Our job is to make the case that, of all these choices, our company's shares are their best option.

To persuade, we must show why we're a choice that should be embraced, especially now - just as a salesperson competes for a customer. The tone may be sophisticated, even technical, but our goal is selling.

Stories answer questions, and there is often a single question that underlies an entire story. In Moby Dick, the question is, "Who will survive?" In Catch 22, it's, "Will Yossarian make it through the war in one piece?" For the investor, the question is, "Why buy shares of XYZ Corp. now?" The last word is the key. Every rookie journalist is taught to answer that question near the beginning of a story. Explain why the story is appearing in today's newspaper. The investor presentation needs to do the same.

The "So what?" question is the link between the facts presented and gaining an investor's attention. If a presenter proudly announces that his or her company is the sixth-largest widget maker in America, the audience wants to understand the competitive advantage of this fact. If the answer is that there is none, then why did he mention it? Too many presentations are plagued by this defect.

Answering questions can be tricky because the audience is a mix of people who have different levels of understanding of your company. You don't want to aim too low, but to aim too high is a risky position to take.

The most important point is to remember that telling a story that answers questions is the most effective way to make a lasting impression on an audience. They may not "buy" your story, but at least they'll understand it.

Fred Bratman is president of Hyde Park Financial Communications.

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